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You can’t walk too far at Greenville High School without history tagging along. In the lobby there are the Wall of Fame and a plaque bearing names of graduates who died in Vietnam.  Photos of championship teams dating back to before World War II hang from the walls outside the gym. Past student body presidents’ photos adorn the second-floor hallway.

And then there are the floors in about half of the classrooms. They are maple. Despite a $46 million top-to-bottom makeover, they are the same floors walked on by the thousands of students who came before, people such as Herman Lay, the founder of the company that makes Lays potato chips, and Douglas Leigh, an advertising executive known as the sign king of Broadway. Gov. Richard Riley, Ambassador David Wilkins, Mayor Knox White, laser inventor Charles Townes, federal Judge Clement Haynsworth, actress Joanne Woodward, Tony Award nominee Philip Boykin.

Graduates left the school on the hill for careers in Greenville and beyond, yet they retain a strong and emotional tie to their alma mater. They give money and talk to students decades after graduation.  They used their considerable influence to make sure Greenville County Schools did not tear down the building in favor of a new one when Greenville High’s turn came in the school district’s $1 billion overhaul of 70 schools and centers.

Others who did not attend Greenville High, such as William Webster IV, co-founder of Advance America, recognize and applaud the school’s stature. Webster, who was a Fulbright scholar in Germany, flew back there as the Berlin Wall was coming down, bought a 13-foot-long section and had it shipped to Greenville. The first place he approached to donate the artifact was Greenville High School, whose football games he never missed as a child and where family members went to school. It’s displayed in the senior courtyard.  Principal JF Lucas says he feels the devotion every day. “It’s a love of tradition and history,” he said.

That feeling will be on display Sept. 14 and 15, when the Alumni Association celebrates the school’s 125th anniversary with tours, a snake dance to the Greenville-Greer football game at Sirrine Stadium, and a dinner-dance at the Hyatt Hotel.  They expect 700 at the dinner, a full stadium at the game.

On another hill

It seems appropriate given all the battles waged over the decades in the name of Greenville High School Academy of Law, Business and Finance that the school rose from the ashes of conflict back in 1885. Former Mayor Thomas C. Gower proposed building a public school. He was one of the partners in Gower, Cox and Markley Carriage Factory, which was located in what is now the Wyche Pavilion at the Peace Center.

Before then only wealthy families could afford to send their children to the college preparatory programs at Greenville Female College or Greenville Military Academy. The idea of tax dollars going to pay for education was not well received.  It took two years, but Gower won when the General Assembly created the Greenville City School District. Two schools would be built with $18,000 raised in a bond issue.  The first was built on Prospect Hill, now the site of the Greenville Water System. East End School would become Central School and included seven grades. By 1916, Central had 11 grades and residents were clamoring for a separate high school building. The school’s first football team took the field that year – The Red Electrics.

In 1920, a high school was constructed at Prospect Hill, and in 1938 the current building was built on Vardry Street, bolstered by $420,000 in Works Progress Administration funds. In another tie to the Carriage Factory, the property had been the home of Thomas Cox, one of the founders.  The school was designed by the company owned by J.E. Sirrine, whose touch is on dozens of Greenville buildings still standing, such as the Poinsett Hotel and Fourth Presbyterian Church and many no longer around including Textile Hall and City Hospital.

The new Greenville High School was splashed across The Greenville News on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 28, 1938. Greenville News / File

Carl Muller, an attorney whose children attended Greenville High, believes much of what makes the school work is its architecture.“It’s in the middle of town, sits on a hill and it’s an old, historic structure,” he said. “It would not feel the same if it was a prefab structure. If you flattened the nation’s capital and had Congress and the president work out of a Holiday Inn, it wouldn’t be the same America.”

He remembers the uncertainty when school district officials were discussing whether to renovate or build new. A new school would be cheaper.  But parents were resolute. The new must find a way to mesh with the old.  Parents and school leaders had been through a fight to get practice fields adjacent to the school and had raised $1.7 million to buy and renovate Sirrine Stadium.  The building was renovated, a classroom wing added, and an atrium built for a lunchroom and cafeteria. A new gym was built as well.

Making a mayor

The man who shepherded Falls Park and RiverPlace and much of what makes downtown Greenville work was a shy private-school student from a privileged family until he finished the ninth grade. He told his parents he wanted to go to Greenville High rather than the expanding Christ Church School, which he had attended since he was in elementary school.

“I wanted to reinvent myself,” White said, sitting in the classroom where he learned Latin. This was 1969. Forced integration had not yet come to Greenville High. A few blacks were enrolled under a plan the school district called freedom of choice. It was limited and in place only to keep the courts at bay. Court-ordered integration came the next February and White remembers it as peaceful and in some ways uplifting. He remembers student body president Don Linn saying, “We’re not black and white. We’re red and white (the school colors) when we walk in that door.”

Integration brought two key people into White’s life, Xanthene Norris, now a County Council member, and vice principal Joe Mathis, a beloved coach.  “They took me seriously,” White said. He ran for class president and won, then student body president and won that, too. He worked hard, even printed up agendas for meetings. And his love of politics was born. He graduated in 1972 and went to Wake Forest University, but White says his deep emotional tie is to Greenville High.

Troubled days

The years after integration were not good ones for Greenville High School. Fearful white families enrolled their children in private schools as Greenville reached out to the suburbs. The shops and businesses of downtown Greenville were heading to Haywood Road. The Eastside rose from field and forest with planned neighborhoods making a need for new schools.  White said like downtown Greenville, Greenville High fell into disarray. Principals didn’t stay long. A student stabbed a teacher to death in a hallway. Academics languished. Even the sports teams did not play well.

“It was a no-go zone,” White said. “They were pushing against the wind on many issues.”

Lucas said the turnaround came when school district officials sent in Marilyn Hendrix, who had opened and led Mauldin High for a dozen years. She was Greenville County’s first female principal and a strict disciplinarian with a keen sense of humor, a disarming and effective trait when dealing with teenagers. Lucas played football at Mauldin High and remembers more than once being sent to the principal’s office.  White said as downtown came around, so did its high school. It is unusual for a city high school to be located in a historic building. So much so that White keeps the school on his route during his frequent tours for visitors.

Like no other

Muller, a Harvard-educated lawyer who can afford to send his children to any private school in the country, said he was sold on Greenville High within five minutes at an open house in 1996.

"Greenville High School is unique in all of America. It is a true melting pot and at the same time it’s like a relic from the past, a time when American institutions were wholesome.” - Greenville attorney Carl Muller

It is also a school with a dual identity. Students come from the richest families and the poorest. They come with stellar academic progress and unable to read at grade level. They are the fourth generation of their families to attend and they are recent immigrants.  A document written for the accreditation process describes the school as two in one – a place of advanced classes and a place of remedial education. Sixty-five percent of students are on free or reduced lunch and minorities are the majority: 57 percent black, Hispanic and other, 43 percent white.  Yet Muller and Lucas say the races mix easily. In his seven years as principal and an additional 12 years as a teacher and assistant principal, Lucas said he has seen fewer than five fights between students of different races.  From time to time students will participate in Challenge Days when they go off campus and talk about their lives to try to better understand each other. They might be asked whether they had ever known anyone who had been shot or if their parents have ever hit them with a fist.  “Kids start to see other people’s lives,” Lucas said. “It knocks down the wall a bit.”

Football and traditions

Muller said the Friday evening home games at Sirrine Stadium is where the community spirit shines most. It’s like a gathering of old friends. He still goes to football games even though his youngest child graduated five years ago. “You get to see a great game and do some business,” he said. He can’t count the number of cases he’s gotten at a Greenville High football game.  Besides renovating the stadium itself, parents have chipped in to buy cases for the 50 or so state championship trophies won by athletes and to outfit a 2,400-square-foot weight room. A recent oyster roast raised $50,000.

Students hold steadfast to tradition. Only seniors eat in the cafeteria. Reverence is shown to the Nautilus, a sprawling cypress also known as the kissing tree. Seniors spend a day each spring working on the grounds. “There’s so much spirit and energy in this school." - student Hannah Lorenzen

Hannah Lorenzen said now that she’s a senior, she’s looking forward to being able to stand on the wall alongside the football field.

More than book learning

Muller said high school is as much about academics as it is about learning citizenship and how to get along in the world. He remembers when his son, Wiley, was a freshman, and was a 95-pound wrestler. His first match was disastrous. Pinned within seconds, he walked off the mat inconsolable.

“He could hardly talk,” Muller said.

But then as they were leaving the school someone called Wiley over to a beat-up station wagon. When he rejoined his parents, he was smiling and happy. It was an older and popular wrestler who told Wiley of his own mishap in his first match. Wiley ended up being a terrific wrestler, vice president of the junior class and president of the senior class. And when it was his turn, he watched out for those who came after him just as he was shown.  “The future is not assured. It requires attention at all levels." - Attorney Carl Muller

“Students teach each other,” Muller said.  But current and future generations of students – and especially parents – should not take for granted what they have, Muller said.  “The future is not assured,” he said. “It requires attention at all levels. Some people think it’s somebody else’s job. If we want our institutions to work, we can’t let somebody else do it.”